Michael Burg, JD'75
Which of these events will help you win multiple Trial Lawyer of the Year Awards and the Lawyer of the Decade Award: become inspired as a child to be a trial lawyer by the book Clarence Darrow for the Defense by Irving Stone, graduate from Denver Law, fail your first attempt at the bar exam, get fired from your first legal job, start your own law firm, act and perform stand-up comedy, author a book or found a law firm that has earned more the $1 billion in verdicts, settlements and judgments for clients?
The answer? If you are Michael Burg, all of the above!
Burg, JD’75, Denver Law adjunct professor and founder of Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh and Jardine PC, was inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame in April, 2016, with the portrait unveiling ceremony in September, 2017. The only Denver Law graduate to hold this honor, Burg is a heavy hitter for the everyday man, serving as lead counsel in over 185 jury trials, including high-profile cases against pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly and Johnson & Johnson, as well as the financial industry.
The award was just one of many that Burg has received in his four decades of practicing law, including the Clarence Darrow Award, and he says he owes it all to a hard-driving determination and a good sense of humor.
From Law School to Litigation
When asked, he offers this advice for JD students: “There’s no straight line to success. Everyone is going to get knocked down, but question is, are you going to get up?”
He says this because this is the path his own career has taken.
Burg grew up in Chicago and wanted to be a trial lawyer his whole life. After reading Clarence Darrow for the Defense, he was inspired by what a lawyer could do to make a change for the better.
“We are protectors,” he says. “We’re the last line of protection for consumers.”
He followed through with that dream and was accepted to law school at Georgetown, George Washington and Denver Law, but he chose Denver because it more closely fit his career goals.
“The trial courses worked best,” he relates, adding that his experiences in Professor Thompson Marsh’s property law courses were particularly beneficial in the long run.
“He’d say ‘the law is that which is boldly asserted and plausibly maintained’. He’d call on you with a deck of cards with your name on it. If he didn’t like what you said or thought it was substandard, he’d give you a black mark. After three, he’d tear up your card,” Burg says.
Burg was called on three days in a row.
“At the time, it was brutal, but I grew and learned.”
Things were not exactly smooth sailing for Burg, though, when he left law school. He not only failed his first attempt at the bar exam, he was also fired from his first job.
However, he was determined to continue in his legal career.
“I was forced to go it on my own,” he says.
His dad bought him a desk and gave him this sage advice: “Don’t chase the money. Be the best you can be, and the money will follow.”
He began his career doing collection work for small clients. That allowed him the opportunity to have a lot of one-day jury trials and gave him experience putting people on the stand. To further scrape together a living, he also taught paralegal school and got into commercial modeling and acting. He got a break doing some commercials for major companies, and it took him out to Los Angeles, where he eventually got an agent.
“At that point, I wasn’t sure what was happening in my career,” he says. “By the way, my parents thought I had lost my mind.”
While his acting career didn’t work out, and he chose to throw everything he had into his law practice, it did lead him to once again try something new – something that serves him in his trials to this day: stand-up comedy.
“I did two minutes of open mic night and had a chance to work with Roseanne Barr when she was just starting out,” Burg says, adding that as he continued his comedy career, “I found out it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
The stand-up experience, though, gave him some of the courtroom presentation skills that have helped him earn winning verdicts against defendants big and small as he moved through his career. He went from representing insurance companies to bringing justice to consumers against multi-national corporations such as General Electric, Johnson & Johnson and JP Morgan Chase, just to name a few.
Key to Success
From law school to stand-up comedy, Burg has embraced the path his career has taken, which has helped him build a law firm with 60-plus litigation attorneys, based in five offices in Colorado, Wyoming, Ohio, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.
He’s learned a lot in his years as a trial lawyer and has sage advice for law students and new lawyers interested in trial work.
“You have to have great respect for our democracy. You have to have ethics. You have to have integrity. It is crucial in life and law. You can never fool the jury. You can’t fool them,” he says, adding, “No ego, no fear, and it’s important that you not take yourself too seriously.”
And most importantly, take a page from his playbook: work hard. Never quit. Never give up.
“I was not the guy coming out of high school or law school that people noticed. I was the guy that got fired from his first job. I was the guy who failed his first bar exam. But no one has put a bright sign up saying what you can or cannot accomplish. If you commit to it, you can surprise yourself.”
Interested in learning more about Michael Burg’s life and career? Read his novel Trial by Fire: One Man’s Battle to End Corporate Greed and Save Lives.